The Balkan Chronicle - Marion James - 5 April 2009


The Idle Years’ by Orhan Kemal


Sunday, 05 April 2009 04:21

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with this genre, but the English language reader of Turkish fiction could be forgiven for thinking that all of this country's novelists write surreal novels that lead one's imagination into paths it has not trodden before. A brand new translation, sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain, emphatically dispels this, as it presents a semi-autobiographical novel by one of Turkey's best-loved writers.

Set in the 1920s and 1930s, "The Idle Years" covers a young man's struggles as his family loses their wealthy position because his father is a political activist who ends up having to flee the country. The narrator never settles into Beirut and longs to return to his home in Adana.

Turkish author Orhan Kemal typing a piece on the typewriter as he holds his son, Işık Öğütçü, in a photograph taken in 1959. Kemal’s 1950 novel “Avare Yıllar” was published in English under the title “Idle Years.”

When he does so, of course, it is not as he left it -- all his friends have moved away, and the neighborhood has changed out of all recognition. Like many young people he believes salvation will come from İstanbul, but of course the streets there turn out not to be paved with gold after all. Only back in Adana can he find his destiny.
The first part of this story is titled "My Father's House"; the second "The Idle Years," and they are presented in one volume as the stories run naturally on from one another. But for me the most fascinating thing about this edition is the introduction by Turkey's other famous literary Orhan -- Orhan Pamuk.

He says: "A rather strange fact observable in the world of literature is that writers of an optimistic nature come less frequently from prosperous, comfortable and materially secure backgrounds than from ones where they had to struggle against hardship and deprivation. This is a rare brand of optimism that defies our usual understanding of the world. ... We can see many examples of this hard-won wisdom in the early fiction of Orhan Kemal."

Pamuk, who comes from a very materially secure background, writes pages full of melancholy -- Kemal, who suffered not only financial hardship in his youth but was also imprisoned for five years for his political views, writes pages full of optimism and hope. It is almost as if when middle-class angst meets working-class practical cheerfulness, each is more sharply defined by the clashing contrast.

Pamuk continues: "The author offers reflections on poverty, disease and unemployment in Adana ... but at the heart of Orhan Kemal's fiction is another world, a world not full of anxiety about getting enough to eat -- one he seems to enjoy telling us more about. Here we find close friendships, the intimacy of family life, brotherhood and solidarity, meals shared, innocent neighborhood romances and the pleasures of simply whiling away time."

Pamuk is right -- Kemal is a Turkish author in the tradition of greats of Western literature such as Dickens, Hugo and Dostoyevsky. When Dickens shows us the injustices of the blacking factory and the debtors' prison in "David Copperfield" he paints the most amazing characters, chief of all being Mr. Micawber, who was never able to follow his own sound advice and so was always reliant on something turning up. There are few characters in literature so touching as honest Joe Gargery, the blacksmith in "Great Expectations," and Peggoty's family in "David Copperfield." French literature is full of examples such as the townspeople where Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables" becomes mayor, and the eponymous "Brothers Karamazov" are similar examples from Russian literature.

In "The Idle Years," Kemal paints wonderful portraits of the narrator and his mother, and the narrator's friends. His father is a domineering man, feared and obeyed. With his friends when he returned to Adana, the unemployed narrator fills his stomach by playing football. The losing team would treat the winning team to a meal in a local restaurant, often the only time they would have a decent meal all week.

When Nejip comes to town on military service he tells them all about İstanbul: "The marvelous picture he painted played on my childhood memories, making İstanbul seem a bright land of promise. It made my home town appear lackluster by comparison." Maybe they could even play for Fenerbahçe?

But this is no Pollyanna story, where everyone has hopeful dreams and optimism wins through. In order to earn the bus fare they take jobs in the local factory. "Cotton particles were everywhere and I was hit by a strong smell of starch. I was overwhelmed ... and had forgotten about İstanbul."

Finally reaching the big city, they find so much there to amaze them. But its charms soon wear thin "because we were almost always hungry, and beautiful sights didn't fill our stomachs."

They were free men, but this freedom meant nothing because they had no money to enjoy their freedom. "İstanbul is one of a kind! You can hop off its trams, hop on to its taxis and entertain whom you want at the restaurant of your choice. ... You can set up a factory, or stay unemployed or open a bank. ... Whatever you want!" Saying this, one morning starving and cold they board a boat to return to Adana.

It is Kemal's socialist beliefs that provide this touch of earthy realism as they are woven into the story. In Bursa State Prison he was influenced by meeting Nazım Hikmet, and many of their ideas coincide.

He explores what poverty does to individuals; how there is a solidarity between those stuck in poverty, which is quickly forgotten by those who manage to climb out of it. The narrator becomes disillusioned and angry as he perceives the selfishness of the middle-classes. "Having decided ‘you only live once' they wanted to dress well, eat well, travel [and] enjoy themselves. ... They had no interest in why others weren't able to do the same." But he is not allowed to dwell on this anger.

A political thinker he meets encourages him to overcome his rebellious feelings, telling him he has to beat his self-pity. "It will imprison you in your own mind. You will become your own worst enemy. It will ruin you! Try it. First get yourself a job, any job."

Despite the realism, there is hope. "Oh hunger! How deeply I have felt your ache, in my stomach, my veins and my very bones. But you, my fellow man, with your humanity and compassion, one day you will feed us all and end this scourge for ever."

Let's give the final word to Orhan Pamuk: "The optimism I find in [Orhan Kemal's novels] comes not from literature but from life itself."

"The Idle Years" by Orhan Kemal, published by Peter Owen, 12.50 pounds in paperback, ISBN: 978-072061310-0